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Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago? Let me refresh your memory of what life was like in 1981. Dallas was the top show on television. Raiders of the Lost Ark was a box-office juggernaut. And when you turned on the radio, there was a good chance you would hear “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang. In the spring of 1981, I was wrapping up my formal education at the University of Texas and dreaming, believe it or not, of a career in the airline industry. I was especially interested in joining American Airlines, in part because 30 years ago this month, AA launched a bold marketing initiative that changed the industry landscape dramatically and permanently.

I’m talking, of course, about AAdvantage, the world’s first frequent-flier program, whose growth over the last three decades has been nothing short of amazing. We hit the ground running in 1981 with about 300,000 members eager to earn and redeem “miles” (a brand-new expression back then) on American Airlines. Today, the AAdvantage program has more than 66 million members. To put that in perspective, if the ?AAdvantage program were a country, it would have roughly the same population as France. And it’s still growing. Last year, approximately 2.4 million new members joined the ?AAdvantage program — that’s about four and a half new members every minute.

As you know, one of the keys to the ?AAdvantage program’s growth has been the fact that you no longer have to fly frequently to earn rewards. There are countless ways to earn miles for things you do every day — and there are more options for redeeming those miles than ever before, including car rentals, hotel stays, upgrades and much more.

In 2010, AAdvantage members claimed more than seven million awards, redeeming more than 165 billion miles (equivalent to 890 round-trips between Earth and the sun). But while big numbers are impressive, the power of the ?AAdvantage program rests, I believe, not in its sheer size but on the impact it has on its individual members’ lives. As part of our 30th-anniversary celebration, we have been asking AAdvantage members to tell us their stories, and the results have been truly inspiring. We’ve heard from couples who met onboard an AA flight, used their miles to sustain a long-distance courtship and are now married. We’ve heard from members who use their miles to lend a hand to a wide variety of good works around the world. And of course, we’ve heard over and over again about how the AAdvantage program is helping people lead lives of adventure and fun. We may have invented the idea of an airline-rewards program, but it is our customers — you! — who have enlivened it and made it not just a good business idea but a cultural phenomenon.

We’re proud of the success and growth of the AAdvantage program, but of course we’re mindful of the old expression: “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” Our breakthrough innovation of 1981 has certainly been adopted (copied is such an ugly word) by lots of companies in and out of the airline industry, so we are working hard — and thinking hard — to make sure the AAdvantage program remains as fresh and as innovative in 2011 as it was 30 years ago. In addition to AA.com/?AAdvantage, you can keep up with the newest ways to earn and redeem miles — as well as share ideas with fellow AAdvantage members — via Facebook (Facebook.com/AAdvantage) and Twitter (@AAdvantage).

In 1982, the year after the world’s premier loyalty program was launched, I landed the job I wanted with my dream company, American Airlines. And in the subsequent years, one of the things I have learned is that while miles are important, the loyalty of our customers is, first and foremost, a byproduct of the skill, poise and care of our people. So as we celebrate 30 years of AAdvantage, I hope you will join me in congratulating the entire AA team for making the program such a success. I know I speak for them all in saying we intend to earn your loyalty for at least another 30 years, starting with your flight today. Thank you for flying with us.

Signatureof Gerard Arpey
Gerard J. Arpey
American Airlines